Attendance is falling at COVID-19 testing events. Some officials say fear of missing a paycheck is partly to blame.

Attendance is falling at COVID-19 testing events. Some officials say fear of missing a paycheck is partly to blame.
A woman is tested for COVID-19 in a parking lot in Richmond where the health department set up a temporary walk-up testing center. (Source: Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

In late May, 536 people registered for one of the Richmond-Henrico Health District’s COVID-19 community testing events. Throughout the summer, including much of August, attendance rarely dipped below 150.

But for the past few weeks, registration numbers have taken a dive. One of the district’s latest events, organized in the parking lot of the Eastern Henrico Health Department earlier this month, only attracted 48 people. Other health departments and their community partners across Virginia have noticed a similar trend.

New River Health District, which stretches across four counties in Southwest Virginia, pared-down community testing events to three days a week in late September, attributing the new schedule to “low-level community spread and a decrease in demand.” Thomas Jefferson Health District — centered in Charlottesville with local departments in Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa and Nelson counties — has seen testing decrease in “more rural localities,” with anywhere from a 10 to 50 percent drop in attendance, according to emergency manager Jessica Coughlin.

While explaining the decline isn’t always clear-cut, some health officials are citing “COVID fatigue” as the ongoing pandemic stretches into its eighth month. “I think a lot of it has to do with people kind of learning to live life and navigate life with COVID,” said Dr. Noelle Bissell, director of the New River Health District, in a media call last week. “A couple of months ago, people who practiced very low-risk lifestyles and were abiding by the precautions still wanted to get tested to know. And we’re just not seeing that right now.”

But other experts worry part of the drop has to do with people fearing the loss of a job or a paycheck because of a positive test result. When the state’s General Assembly convened in August for a special session largely focused on the pandemic, legislators listed protections such as paid sick time and expanded worker’s compensation as some of their biggest priorities. Those pieces of legislation have been largely unsuccessful as the session draws to a close.

A particular blow to workers and their advocates was the death of a bill — less than a month after lawmakers first met in Richmond — that would have guaranteed two weeks of paid quarantine leave to most employees working 20 hours or more a week.

“Particularly for lower-income communities, the calculation that you make, about fear of the disease versus the consequences of having a positive test, is different than it might be for other folks,” said Dr. Danny Avula, director of the Richmond-Henrico Health District. “They know that if they have a positive test, they’re going to be out of work for 10 days.”

“I actually think it’s a very widespread concern,” he added. “It’s not just a small percentage of folks. For low-income African Americans and particularly undocumented Spanish-speaking residents, it is a major, major liability for them to get tested.”

As COVID cases in some parts of the state begin to increase after a significant drop through much of September — a month that saw Virginia’s percentage of positive tests fall below 5 percent — public health experts worry the lack of protections could hinder testing efforts. Dr. Mike Murchie, the medical director for CrossOver Healthcare Ministry, a free clinic in Richmond, said his office saw testing numbers fall significantly in late July after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its guidelines for when employees should be allowed to return to work after testing positive.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.